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Riverhead ZBA expected to issue decision on Salvation Army donation bins

The Riverhead Zoning Board of Appeals is planning to issue a ruling on whether the Salvation Army Family Store at 319 East Main St. is a “church” or religious institution at its next meeting Thursday, Feb. 10, at 7 p.m.

That decision is key to determining whether to allow the Salvation Army to continue having clothing drop-off bins behind the store, something town officials say is not permitted in the Downtown Center 1 zoning district. 

The Salvation Army is a religious corporation organized in 1899 by a special act of the New York State legislature, according to Alfred Lucia, the attorney for the Salvation Army. 

But does that mean the Family Store, which has been on East Main Street since the 1980s, is a church? 

The town issued a violation to the store in January 2019 because of the drop-off bins. The one charge has been continuously adjourned since then, officials said.

Leroy Barnes, a ZBA member and former town building inspector, said the violation was issued because the bins are not permitted in DC-1. 

Both Mr. Lucia and Major Patrick O’Gara of the Salvation Army told the ZBA at a prior hearing that they do hold prayer sessions at the Family Store from time to time.

Last Thursday, three speakers spoke in favor of allowing the bins to remain, and two of them suggested that the opposition to the store has emerged due to a gentrification of the area brought on by the large apartment buildings going up in downtown Riverhead. 

No one spoke against the Salvation Army at the ZBA hearings. 

“We’re not here to destroy the Salvation Army,” said ZBA member Otto Wittmeier. “We’re here to determine if the building is a church or not.” 

The Salvation Army currently has six bins on its property. Even if they gain approval from the ZBA, the town zoning code will allow no more than two bins on the property. 

Mr. Wittmeier said he’s never seen the store property look as good as it has since the violations were issued. He said they are “a great charity.” 

The ZBA has held two hearings on issue so far, on Jan. 13 and Jan. 27.